Play hard, play smart, play together.
If Morris can get his players to abide by those tenets of his, then the Hawks are capable of almost anything — just as the 2012-13 team demonstrated.
Hillgrove surged beyond expectations, finishing with a 28-5 record and making history with its first trip to the state championship game.
“We build everything around those principles,” said Morris, the 2012-13 Marietta Daily Journal/Cobb County Boys Basketball Coach of the Year. “If we can get them playing hard, then we can work on doing the little things to win and then start doing all those little things together.”
Morris, along with assistants Spencer Bernstein, Keyon Boyd and Guy Catton, had Hillgrove come together in a big way in the Class AAAAAA state tournament. One way he had them come together was by having them play team defense. Known for its half-court man-to-man defense, Hillgrove limited its postseason opponents to just over 50 points per game.
Not known to take gambles in stealing the ball, Morris had the Hawks do the little things, like boxing out and holding teams to one shot. In the end, Hillgrove flirted with its first state championship before Norcross took over in the fourth quarter, en route to the Blue Devils’ 60-46 win.
“(Defense) is the first thing we do every day. We do defensive drills and breakdown drills and then put it into our team concept,” Morris said. “The kids have been in our program all throughout high school, and that philosophy is taught every single year.”
Hillgrove was also successful in Region 4AAAAAA play. Two of its three losses came to North Cobb, with the third a three-point setback against Kennesaw Mountain.
But it was a 58-52 loss to North Cobb in the region tournament finals — to a Warriors team that was missing two starters — that proved to be a turning point of sorts for the Hawks.
“They were disappointed when we lost the region championship to North Cobb,” Morris said. “I was like, ‘Hey, we still have more basketball left,’ and we used that for motivation. We still had another goal out there that we can reach. Let’s take it one game at a time and get by the first round. We did that, and we kept going. We took it one game at a time, and the next thing we knew, we looked up and we were in the final four.”
Hillgrove’s road to the finals started with a 57-43 win over Valdosta and 72-63 victory over Tri-Cities. That put the Hawks in the state quarterfinals against a perimeter-shooting Brunswick team on the road, but Hillgrove broke open a close game late in the fourth quarter to win 57-46.
Then the Hawks had to switch gears and face a post-oriented Wheeler team in the semifinals at Georgia Tech’s. Going up against the Wildcats’ taller players, the Hawks limited their high-scoring opponents to just over 50 points in a 56-54 win.
“We had to play Brunswick, who can shoot the ball well, and then we played Wheeler, who had big guys, and we had to make sure we took care of our defense in the paint,” Morris said. “It’s a testament to the guys that they could take a game plan and execute it.”
As for the championship game, Morris said Norcross was the stronger fourth- quarter team. The Blue Devils took a small lead in the final period, forcing the Hawks to foul, and Norcross made 10 of 12 free throws down the stretch to seal it.